Time travelling through the Savoy

By Sam Bradley | 05 Nov 2021 | Culture, Indulge, Travel

Tempus takes a short break at the grandest of grand dames of London

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Playground of the rich and famous, secret hideaway for illicit lovers, a place to celebrity spot and name drop. She has witnessed weddings, funerals, fortunes made and lost and just about everything in between (including a murder). Since her opening in 1889 she has hosted too many memorable characters to record, from princesses to spies, kings to scallywags. She has served as a refuge from the world outside, and a place to dance on the rooftops and party in the bars. The grandest of grand dames of London. This is the Savoy Hotel. 

One of the things this pandemic has taught me is to truly appreciate travel. Never again will I take for granted the ability to move around freely, or the chance to embrace a change of scenery purely to shake things up. A change is as good as a holiday, we’ve been told, but both have been in short supply recently. With that in mind we boldly embraced the very British concept of the staycation, and (once our children had recovered from the excitement of riding on a train again) we stood before the world-famous entrance to The Savoy Hotel, on the only road in the UK that must legally be driven on the right-hand side. 

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As one would expect from an establishment that’s been making headlines and pushing boundaries since its inception, the hotel is bright, bold and beautiful. The stainless steel Savoy sign has become a distinctive London landmark, as is the guests first impression when entering the lobby: checkerboard black and white marble floors underfoot and grand chandeliers above, complemented by plentiful wood panelling and sculptural friezes.

The hotel manages to perfect the traditional style of British luxury, while also always remaining at the forefront of modern technology: electric lights, en-suite bathrooms and electric lifts (known as “ascending rooms”) all debuted at the Savoy well ahead of their time. Today the gold-fronted lifts still add an extra touch of luxury to the furnishings, and an original red lift dating from the opening is also still in use. The £220m, four-year refurbishment which was completed in 2010 only added to the glitz and the glamour, with new suites added and the public areas redesigned. 

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The 267 rooms and suites are beautifully decorated in two styles: traditional Edwardian (dark wood and silvery tones) or Art Deco (caramel shades and flowery furniture). Expect gorgeously large and comfortable beds with plush Mascioni linens, twice-daily housekeeping service and a bathroom bigger than many London flats. The room also has all the tech features you could need such as Nespresso machines, LCD TVs with UK and international channels and modems for UK and US devices, as well as the all-important fluffy extras (Le Labo toiletries, bathrobes and slippers).

Many of the rooms have views of the Thames, and the general rule is the higher your floor the better your view. There are family suites with interconnected bedrooms available, and the Personality Suites (themed for famous past guests) are well worth a stay. If you’re feeling flush the Royal Suite by Gucci (who, incidentally, happened to work at the Savoy as a luggage porter) may be the one for you: prices start at £15,875 per night and come with a decadent 265 square metres of space and every amenity imaginable, including a dedicated butler and an unrivalled view of the Thames.

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However, it’s unlikely you’ll spend too much time in your room in any case. The 33-foot indoor swimming pool with jet-stream and natural daylight is bound to be a favourite for the children, and the Beauty and Fitness Spa with gym, saunas, steam rooms and a wide range of spa treatments are also very popular. The bars and restaurants are a fantastic place to see and be seen: The American Bar is the oldest cocktail bar in London and has a history all of its own, from being Churchill’s regular haunt to the source of Neil Armstrong’s first drink after the moon landing. Or there’s the opulent and romantic black-and-gold-leafed Beaufort Bar, complete with live piano performances and low lighting.

Their character cocktails also make quite an impression, notably those in honour of Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra. For restaurants there’s the choice of Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill, Simpsons in the Strand (a former chess club converted to a restaurant in 1828, and one of the few restaurants where waiters still carve joints of meat at the table) and the seafood restaurant, Kaspar’s. Stealing the show, however, is the Thames Foyer, offering an unforgettably decandent afternoon high tea experience. Set in a glass atrium for natural light, with a pianist in the central gazebo providing the ambiance, guests are bewitched and beguiled by a seemingly endless array of teas, classic sandwiches, pastries and traditional homemade scones with clotted cream, jam and lemon curd – each delicacy a work of art. 

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For those planning a British staycation the Savoy is the perfect springboard to explore London at its finest. The theatres start right at the hotel entrance (the Savoy Theatre, currently performing Pretty Woman) with West End not far away. Art lovers will embrace the National Theatre just across the river, while the restaurants of Soho and shops of Leicester Square are also temptingly nearby. Sightseeing with children worked well from the Savoy: we were never far from the boats on the Thames, the swans of Green Park, the guards of Buckingham Palace or the jugglers in the squares of Covent Garden. 

For those preferring not to venture too far, the Savoy Museum provides a peak into the fascinating history of the hotel. And with such a long and illustrious past, the true stories, tall tales and outright fibs all blend together into a delightful concoction of myth and legend that still permeate through these hallowed hallways. The hotel courted extravagance and panazze from the outset, with the first head chef Escoffier daringly introducing a dish named ‘Cuisses de Nymphes à l’Aurore’ (Thighs of Nymphs at Dawn). In 1893 Osar Wilde famously enjoyed an extended stay at the hotel for his romantic trysts before running into financial difficulty, while not long after Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridget series was painted from room 618. The Lancaster Ballroom memorably hosted a gondola themed party, complete with the courtyard flooded to four feet (to imitate the Grand Canal of Venice), real swans in the water and a baby elephant borrowed from London Zoo to deliver the five-foot-high birthday cake.

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In the roaring 20s the hotel was so full of Americans and Hollywood parties it was nicknamed ‘the 49th State’. It was in the 20s that Kasper also appeared on the scene: In 1899 the Savoy hosted a dinner party for 13 guests in which diamond magnate Woolf Joel was the first to leave, and was shot dead a few weeks later. This led to a superstition which over time began to affect bookings, so in 1927 Kaspar the art deco cat was carved and installed as the 14th guest.  Kaspar was also the inspiration for a book by the same name written by Michael Morpurgo while writer in residence at the hotel, and the sculpture is still in use for dinner parties in the hotel today. 

The hotel survived the second world war in style, with the air raid shelter containing velvet curtains around beds and an around-the-clock maid service. However, guests were not completely immune from the effects of the war, as during one dinner a nearby blast was so strong it threw the band leader completely off the stage. During the war the hotel was also host to a full-time resident named Duško Popov, a Serbian spy with such impressive powers of seduction he is alleged to be the inspiration for James Bond (apparently, he often called his uncle for advice in Belgrade, with the number he had to remember being 26-007).

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When peacetime returned the royalty moved in: when Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip at a Savoy wedding reception in 1947 the hotel hosted three kings, four queens and countless princes and dukes. The 60’s then brought a medley of actors, models and musicians: Marilyn Monroe posed drinking tea in a dress with a controversially transparent midriff, while The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were all reprimanded or turned away for contravening the strict dress code. The hotel was a favourite of Frank Sinatra and Charlie Chaplin, the latter enjoying removing his elaborate disguises and slipping into the expectant crowd outside, even joining in with the chanting of “We want Charlie.” Today it remains just as popular with the jet-set crowd, with both Rihanna and Taylor Swift recently using the Savoy as inspiration for their work. 

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and before we had blinked it was time to leave. Carefully clutching their Kaspar the cat teddies and bursting at the seams after another delicious breakfast (when the friendly waitstaff say everything is available they really do mean it, and who can resist pancakes for breakfast), our children said goodbye to the ever-friendly concierge team with their stylish top hats, and we departed out onto the bustling streets of London. Looking back, the allure seems to be the luxurious setting, the central location and the celebrity-laden history of the hotel. However, its actually the incredibly efficient and friendly service that really sticks in my memory: everyone from the cleaning staff to the head concierge seemed intent on making our stay as enjoyable and unforgettable as possible, and they succeeded magnificently.